After an eight-hour battle with your in-tray, relieving stress is a priority. But what if our remedy is a (very large) glass of red?
Words: Katie Mulloy
This is it. Let’s put our well-thumbed, wine-stained cards on the table. As the forerunners of Generation Binge, we know drinking isn’t the healthiest of pastimes. We know it makes us want to eat kebabs at 2am. We know it’s the cause of our Saturday morning remorse and we also know it’s the reason we keep Berocca on the desk and a bacon sandwich tab open at the cafe.
But for an hour or three, when work and its associated strains, politics and evil colleagues threaten to overwhelm us, it also makes us feel good. It’s a common condition, and a common antidote. A Drinkaware study last year showed that 61% of the 825 adults surveyed drink after a stressful day – that’s an incredible 30million of us if it’s a true representation of the population. Not only that, but 73% of women compared to 26% of men said stress was the reason they drank.
The point is, while we’re fully aware an hour of yoga and a half-hearted attempt at meditation is as effective at relieving stress, it’s not as accessible or – let’s be honest – as much fun. Yet what if there was another good reason for you to sidle down to the pub on Friday night? What if drinking was actually good for you?
Everything in Moderation
As many experts will argue, the problem doesn’t lie in us wanting a drink after work. The real issue is how much we consume. “Even if they drink within guidelines, most women in the UK will save up their units and binge drink on a night out, which is where the harm occurs,” explains Helena Conibear, executive director of Alcohol in Moderation.
“As long as the end result is regular moderate drinking,” adds Dr Curtis Ellison, professor of Medicine and Public Health at Boston University and co-director of The International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research, “the net effects are probably good for you.”
Alcohol can be good for us? It would appear so. If the amount stays light to moderate – which, for women, equals one or two drinks a day, and no more than 21 units a week – a growing wealth of research suggests that drinking may be beneficial to our health. “Among the professionals I know, the majority of physicians would go on-the-record saying that a small amount of alcohol, especially wine with meals, is consistent with a healthy lifestyle,” says Dr Ellison.
So how does it help you deal with the day from hell? Well, first up, alcohol isn’t digested like other food; 20% is absorbed through the stomach lining, which is why the first glass has an immediate effect. And that ‘effect’ is the alcohol depressing the central nervous system, slowing communication between the nerves and the brain, which makes you feel more relaxed.
Potentially, the benefits of low-but-regular alcohol consumption are two-fold. Therapists are never going to recommend a stiff G&T as a coping mechanism, but a couple of after-work drinks to unwind may not be the worst thing you can put your body through. “We’re starting to understand the effect that stress has on our health – on our cardiovascular and immune systems – and it’s huge,” states Cary Cooper, professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University. “If a drink helps you unwind and break that stress cycle, great.”
Alcohol’s relationship with the brain is complicated, but it is, essentially, a depressant. “It is important to distinguish between types of stress,” adds Cooper. “A bad day in the office is an acute stress, and you may well benefit from a relaxing drink at the end of it. But for an ongoing chronic stressful situation that you’d rather drink through than face up to; alcohol is not the answer.”
Alcohol as a coping strategy aside, its ability to ease social situations, which can be hugely stress-relieving, has to be another tick in the box for an after-work wine. “It’s a great social lubricant,” confirms Professor Cooper. “You become less inhibited and it can be good for resolving interpersonal conflicts. And if going out with your colleagues and having a drink eases tensions and brings you closer, that’s a good thing.” Plus, rightly or wrongly, we live in a drinking culture where friendships are forged over a bottle. A 2009 study by Norwegian and British researchers found moderate drinkers were happier than both heavy drinkers and teetotallers. These moderate drinkers also reported having more friends and stronger friendship networks. Yet, beyond the psychological discussions, a growing wealth of research is making the argument that, physiologically, alcohol is so beneficial that we’re better off drinking than not.
One 40-year study suggested that those who drank any alcohol added two and a half years to their life expectancy
“When it comes to drinking and ageing diseases, we’re constantly seeing this ‘J-shaped curve’,” explains Dr Phillip Norrie, aka ‘The Wine Doctor’. “At the lowest point of the J are the moderate drinkers – the healthiest of the bunch. Before that, with a slightly higher rate of disease are those who abstain, and after that you have a clear correlation between heavy drinking and higher rates of disease and mortality.”
Earlier this year a US study concluded that women who drank one drink a day were between 17% and 21% less likely to suffer a stroke than teetotallers. Similarly, a recent report by researchers at the University of Barcelona found that in a group of 35 women, two glasses of wine a day over a four-week period not only increased their good cholesterol but also decreased markers of chronic inflammation.
These protective effects are largely due to the alcohol itself. “In simple terms, alcohol favourably alters the balance of fats in the blood, by stimulating the liver to produce ‘good’ high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. HDL removes the ‘bad’ cholesterol from arteries,” explains Conibear. “Alcohol also decreases the stickiness of red blood cells which, if left untreated, could cause a heart attack or a stroke.
Then there are the antioxidants, namely resveratrol and querticin, which, found in higher concentrations in red wine, result in lower blood pressure. They call it The French Paradox – that despite a heavy diet of artery-blocking butter and cream, our Gallic neighbours have surprisingly low rates of heart disease.
“The Copenhagen Heart Centre Study more than a decade ago was the first to look at the separate effects of beer, wine and spirits,” explains Dr Norrie. “It showed that wine drinkers are at lower risk forall-cause mortality than non-wine drinkers. Another 40-year study suggested that those who drank any alcohol added two and half years on to their life expectancy, while those who drank wine added five years.”
As with any field of ongoing research, however, the picture is complicated. Some argue that wine, in particular, is a marker of well-being (drinkers tend to be wealthier and better educated, which all contribute to life quality) and another study to hit the headlines last year suggested that light drinking could increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer – with every additional daily drink increasing the risk by 10%.
But for many women, the benefits of alcohol may well outweigh therisks. “The evidence suggests it may be wise not to drink if you have a family history of breast cancer,” says Conibear. “But otherwise there’s nothing to suggest sensible drinking is harmful to younger women.”
Which takes us back to the method of consumption. “The antioxidants in wine are like vitamins,” stresses Norrie. “They won’t stay in your body so you need a regular intake for them to have an effect. Daily and moderate is the key.”
It is, as with everything in life, a matter of balance. “It’s not an exciting message,” admits Conibear. “Just be a little more aware of how much you pour, the size of the glass and how quickly you knock it back.” Namely, no more than a modest 175ml of a lower alcohol wine (under 12%), one pint of 4% lager or one shot of spirits with a mixer.
So, is the fix for a bad day at the bottom of a glass? Very possibly, as long as alcohol isn’t drunk in excess or used to mask chronic stress. So, tonight you can raise a guilt-free glass. Savour it, let it soothe away the stress – then stop. Knowing that tomorrow you can do it all again.
Picture credit: Rex Features
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